Learning to Touch Fear

Training Josie to TouchMy daughter, Ellie, is training her horse to touch an object. Ellie points at the object and says the word ‘touch’ and her horse, Josie, touches it with her nose. This seems like an odd skill to train. So I asked Ellie why she was doing this. She told me that if a horse sees something that is new, like a paper bag or a traffic cone, then their natural response is fear. Their focus narrows down to the thing that is frightening them, as if they were wearing blinders. Josie then becomes skittish and unpredictable and she ignores Ellie. But if she touches the threat, she realises that it is fine, settles down and opens up to Ellie’s instructions.

Of course horses aren’t the only ones that scare easily, and they aren’t the only ones that can learn to touch the fear. You and I can become skittish, unpredictable and cut off from what’s happening around us when we are afraid.

The big difference is, we aren’t usually spooked by paper bags and traffic cones, for most of us it’s our emotions that we’re afraid to touch.

When fear, anxiety, sadness or anger turn up, we can become both preoccupied by the feelings and also focussed on getting rid of them. We tend to treat internal discomfort as if it is the same as a real threat in the external world. In the grip of painful emotions, we find it difficult to focus on what is happening around us. We tend to ignore the suggestions of our wiser self and we make foolish or impulsive decisions.

What if we could learn how to respond differently to painful emotions? What if we could lightly touch the feelings that scare us? With time we might find that although they seem very threatening they can’t actually harm us.

Like all new skills, it is good to start small with less challenging emotions. Touch them gently and imagine yourself expanding to make room for them. If over and over again we practice the skill of turning towards emotional discomfort with curiosity, something important happens.

Eventually, when fear, anger or sadness turn up, instead of freaking out and being controlled by our emotions, we accept our feelings as signs that we are human and that we care. We are able to take actions based on both our values and what the situation affords and over time these wiser choices will help us to flourish.
So next time you feel yourself freaking out, take a breath and see if you could, just for a moment, touch your feelings with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. It might just change everything.

Building Psychological Flexibility by Turning Rules into Ribbons

This post was co-authored with Marie-France Bolduc . Marie-France is an incredibly warm and compassionate ACT therapist and trainer based in Quebec. In a recent training session, her partner, Benjamin Schoendorff, described a lovely metaphor Marie-France has developed and I wanted to share it with you:

Our mind is a rule-making factory. It constantly tries to make sense of the world. It does this by developing rules that tell us what to do next; what something means; how we should feel; what we should think…

These rules can be helpful. They can save us time and energy.

For example, I have recently made a rule that I will walk 10,000 steps every day. It is a good rule that will help me to stay healthy. But what if I become overly rigid about that rule? What if I insist on walking 10,000 steps, even when I am sick? Then the rule becomes like a ruler – rigid and inflexible. I will also tend to beat myself up when I don’t follow it (like those teachers from my childhood, who used their rulers to wallop disobedient pupils!).

Ribbon and RulerA more helpful approach to these internalized rules is to treat them more like flexible ribbons. They can be applied when it is helpful and not when it isn’t.

To give you another example of how this works in practice. I have a rule that, before I raise a concern, I need to have worked out how I contributed to the problem. This is another ‘good’ rule. It stops me from blaming people unfairly. But if I apply it rigidly, it can hold me back from being authentic. What if, try as I might, I can’t work out my part? Or, if actually no one caused the problem – it just happened? If I follow the rule rigidly, I am paralysed, unable to raise my concerns and sometimes as a result; my silence actually damages the relationship.

You might want to start to notice where rulers and ribbons turn up in your life.

English: tape measure Français : Metre de cout...
If you combine a ruler with a ribbon you get… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What does it feel like when you turn a rule into a ruler? What is it like when you apply it more flexibly and gently like a ribbon?

The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.

George Bernard Shaw

Growing Compassion in Organisations

Hello!

I am so excited to be joining “Working with ACT” exactly two years to the day since Rob and Rachel started this wonderful blog. Working with mindfulness and values is a big part of my professional and personal life. My aim is to bring you interesting perspectives on ACT research.

By way of introduction, I thought I might briefly review one of my own papers written with Sharon Parker.  I promise I will focus on papers by other people in the future 🙂  Here is the citation from which you can link to the paper if you would like to read more.

Atkins, P. W. B., & Parker, S. K. (2012). Understanding individual compassion in organizations: the role of appraisals and psychological flexibility. Academy of Management Review, 37(3).

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“I don’t do emotions!”  This was a comment made by one of my students in reaction to an exercise exploring values and stressors at work. But in reality, we all “do emotions”. A growing body of evidence clearly shows that emotions are a major determinant of performance in all workplaces, including public sector organisations.  Emotions alert us to what matters, they allow us to communicate and make decisions that are effective.  Emotions are at the heart of thinking about how we wish to live and what we wish to create in society?

Becoming skilful at recognising and influencing emotions at work is a key facet of effective leadership and management. Such skill rests upon the quality of our awareness and perspective taking ability. We need to be able to take the perspective of others to act effectively. We need to be compassionate if we are to respond skilfully to our own and others emotions.

Compassion towards oneself and others is a critical part of building effective relationships and making good decisions at work. Think for example of how you handle situations where you or someone in your team fails to achieve important goals. What would it be like if people were more compassionate towards themselves and others at these times?

Compassion is not just a feeling.  It involves four stages:

  1. Noticing another is suffering,
  2. Making judgments about what is going on,
  3. Feeling empathy, and
  4. Taking action.

There are three judgments that can get in the way of compassion towards self or others.

First, we can fail to be compassionate because we judge that the person who is suffering is not deserving of our compassion. For example, we might judge that the person brought their suffering on themselves.

Second, we might judge that the person’s suffering is not relevant to us. Research shows we are much less likely to extend suffering to others who have different goals, or belong to groups with which we do not identify. If we make this judgment, we are more likely to feel disconnection rather than compassion.  One can easily see how this judgment is involved in the debate over immigration in this country.

Third, we make a judgment about our personal resources. If we don’t feel as though we can cope with being in the presence of another who is suffering in some way, we are more likely to feel distress rather than compassion.  The manager who cannot bear to be in the presence of a person crying is making this sort of judgment.  This judgment appears to be involved in the experience of burnout many people feel when they work in jobs that involve caring for others.

Of course, these judgments are sometimes justified.  Modern evolutionary theory suggests that such judgments are an important aspect of self-protection and effective group function.  Sometimes it is best not to feel compassion, or at least not to act upon it. Our argument is not that we should always feel more compassion. Our argument is that it is helpful to become more aware of the automatic reactions that drive our behaviour. To the extent that we can catch our reactions in motion, we can choose our responses more deliberately and improve our effectiveness.

So how might we learn to catch our automatic reactions, and act more in line with what really matters?

If you have been following this blog you will know that there are two aspects of effective training in emotional skills. First, we need to increase mindfulness. Being mindful means being aware of what is happening in each moment both within ourselves and in the world and bringing an attitude of openness to that experience. Second, we need to be clear about our values and the values of the organisation in which we work. There is no point developing awareness if we don’t know how we want to act in the world. Values act as a compass to guide our behaviour.

What has been your experience of compassion at work? Is it encouraged? Does it have a positive impact?

What To Do With Feelings of Shame

SHAME
SHAME (Photo credit: BlueRobot)

Do you think it is bad to feel ashamed?

In this interview, Maarten Aalberse suggests that we have a tendency to feel ashamed about feeling shame and that this causes us problems. He suggests responding to those feelings with empathy and compassion instead of trying to reject these painful emotions. What does that look like?

Shame comes up quite often for me. The other day, a participant in a session I was facilitating said, ‘Well I think this sort of thing is a waste of time. Nothing ever changes as a result.‘ and pop there it was… shame. Gnawing away at my gut. Making me want to crawl into a corner and hide.

My mind went into overdrive: I am a waste of space. All those years of training were a waste of time. I have been deluding myself. It was all pointless. ( I actually feel a bit ashamed letting you know the crazy thoughts my mind can come up with!)

And then, I remembered Maarten’s suggestions and I breathed and asked myself , ‘Can I turn towards this pain with kindness? Can I hold these feelings with compassion? Can I use all of those years of training to choose my next words? Even though the urge to react is so strong?’

This sounded like a good plan, so instead of getting defensive I responded with curiosity, ‘What would have to happen for today to be worthwhile? What would we each need to do?

The conversation moved forward and we made a plan.

I think that Maarten may be right. That allowing those feelings to be there and treating them with kindness may lead to more effective responses.

What about you…are you ashamed of shame? What happens when you treat those feelings with compassion instead? Does that work better for you?

Why I Am Not As Empathic As I Want to Be

Last year, my daughter Ellie, had her wisdom teeth out. It was horrible. It is a painful and unpleasant procedure and, to make matters worse, Ellie has a needle phobia. Ellie felt terrified but she hid it well and looked completely calm. This meant that I looked like a crazy, over-anxious mother insisting that my daughter wasn’t coping whilst Ellie appeared to be fine.

My worry for Ellie, combined with the difficulty in getting her the help she needed, was just horrible.

After the operation Ellie had a lot of pain and vomiting. I felt so bad for her. It was so distressing to see her in such discomfort.

Even now, when we talk about the operation, I have a tendency to get upset and hijack the conversation – suddenly I am going on about how I found the whole thing awful.

When my loved ones are in pain, I feel it so acutely that I struggle to be present and helpful. This is because I lack some key empathy skills.

Louise McHugh recently taught me that there are three aspects to empathy:

1. Perspective taking – Imagining how I would feel if I were you. Or, even better, if I was you, with your history and temperament and circumstances, how would I feel?

2. Being open to feel the painful emotions provoked by taking the other person’s perspective.

3. Handling those painful emotions effectively so as not to get so swamped and distressed that you can’t focus on supporting the other person. Strategies for handling painful emotions include mindfulness (getting present with your five senses; holding your pain with compassionate awareness) and connection to that still part of yourself that observes what is happening without being caught up in it.

If I am to become more empathic I need to work on the third aspect of empathy. When the feelings swamp me, I need to remember to breathe and get present. I need to connect to the part of me that can observe and transcend pain and difficulty. When a precious human being needs my help and support; I want to become better at giving them what they need.

How empathic are you? What gets in the way of empathy for you?

The Risks of ‘Knowing’ The Rules

All through our lives we learn ‘rules’. Anything from ‘Wash your hands before dinner’ to ‘Good goals are SMART goals’ and even ‘All men are #%s*#%^*’.

Is it a good idea to ‘know’ the rules? Well, it depends.

Robert Sternberg and Peter Frensch (1989) were interested in exploring this. They pitted expert and novice Bridge players against a computer. Of course, the experts understood the rules of Bridge more fully than the novices. So, when the computer played according to the usual rules of Bridge, the expert players did well (no surprises there!). But then the researchers fundamentally altered the rules of the game and the novices then outperformed the experts. The novices adjusted to the change more quickly whereas the experts kept following the rules of Bridge even when they weren’t playing Bridge anymore.

Other psychology studies have come up with similar results. When we think we know the rules, we can be slow to notice when things have changed and we can tend to persist in behaviour that often doesn’t work.

When you find yourself doing the same thing over and over, even when you aren’t getting the outcomes that you want. When you notice that your behaviour has a driven, inflexible quality … pause…breathe…notice what is actually happening in the world (rather than what your mind is telling you is happening) and then consider choosing a different action that is more likely to work in that moment.

We Can’t Get Rid Of Our Mental Junk – So What Do We Do Instead?

The Big Clear Out

People in my neighborhood are throwing out their junk. They are sorting out their stuff and leaving it on the side of the road. In a few days some lovely people from the council will come and take it all away. Wonderful!

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that with the junk in our minds? If we could choose which of the rules about ourselves and the world that we carry around in our minds, no longer work for us and just get rid of them?

Sadly, behaviorism tells us that this isn’t possible. We can’t unlearn something (unless we are willing to suffer brain damage – which seems a little extreme!). We can only add to our learning.

Let me give you an example. When I was a medical student I learnt that it was a very bad thing to make a mistake. When I practiced medicine, this was usually a very good rule to follow. I think my patients were glad I took that approach!

However, I don’t practice medicine anymore. Although doing an excellent job is still very important to me and my clients, generally it isn’t a disaster if I make a mistake. In fact, trying too hard to avoid mistakes can impair my capacity to do a good job. I can end up being too much of a perfectionist.

I can’t unlearn the rule I learnt as a medical student. It will always be with me. But what I can do is learn some new ways of behaving so I have more options. And I can get better at recognising when an old rule like ‘I mustn’t make any mistakes’ isn’t appropriate and 80% is good enough.

What internal rules do you have that are no longer useful for you?

When Your Mind is Saying: ‘You Just Aren’t Good Enough’

I want to tell you a secret…I have a fierce ‘I am not good enough story’ running today. It has been in my face on and off most of the day.

What triggered it? My dear friend and co-blogger, Rob Archer, has written four really good posts in the last few weeks. In case you missed them, there are two on values here and here and two on talent management here and here. They are really good. I feel intimidated. My mind is telling me how embarrassing it must be for Rob to have to put up with my inarticulate ramblings on this blog. I have a strong impulse to delay posting until I come up with something absolutely brilliant.

So what do I do?

I breathe…and pause for a moment. I lean into myself with kindness. I acknowledge that this ‘I am not good enough’ story has been around for many years. If I dig around, I can even find my first memory of it (I was 4 and got in trouble at school for needing to go to the bathroom during class – let’s just say that the incident ended with me wearing some borrowed knickers from the school knicker cupboard). This story is an old friend that visits me often. And I know that it is trying to help, trying to keep me safe. To protect me from further ‘knicker cupboard’ embarrassment. I also acknowledge to myself that I am not the only person in the world that has that story running now and again.

And I think ‘What do my values tell me to do here?‘ This endeavour – Working with ACT – really matters to me. Being authentic and real really matter to me.

So here I am writing away…whilst my mind whispers, ‘This is rubbish, who wants to read this’.  Thanks mind.

How to Evolve a More Vital Life

If you are reading this blog, you are probably the sort of person who wants a life that is vital.  According to Steve Hayes, ACT helps us to evolve more vitality by:

1.Undermining Repertoire Narrowing Processes 

What this means in everyday language is that when we are in the grip of strong emotions or have been hooked by painful thoughts our behaviour tends to narrow down and become inflexible. ACT aims to lessen this tendency so that we can choose our behaviour from a broader range of options. This means we can stop doing what we have always done (which tends to get us what we have always got) and start choosing our behaviour based on the circumstances and our values.

2. Situating action in the conscious present

Instead of our actions being triggered by memories of the past, or fears about the future, or inflexible rules; we observe the world as it is and take action based on this connection to the present moment.

3. Choosing your selection criteria

Rather than accepting the criteria the world has given us for what constitutes success or ‘correct’ behaviour, we choose our own values and use these values to guide our actions.

And so we evolve a more vital life

Flexibly choosing our behaviour based on both our values and what the situation offers, enables us to create more richness and vitality in our lives.

The research is growing that the approaches taken by ACT are successful in achieving these outcomes, which is rather cool for those of us interested in empirically supported interventions.

Influencing our Thoughts and Feelings

We all have times when we want to get rid of painful thoughts or feelings. It would be odd if we didn’t – pain is unpleasant and wanting it to go away is sensible.

What strategies have you tried to get rid of unpleasant thoughts and feelings?

You might have tried:

  • Distracting yourself (focussing on something else or doing something useful);
  • Soothing yourself  (taking some slow, deep breaths; eating some chocolate; finding someone to reassure you)
  • Challenging the thoughts (Is it really true that I am lazy?)
  • Problem solving the issue that caused the pain (I am anxious because I am running late delivering this project so I will come up with a workable plan to get it finished on time).

Often these strategies are helpful BUT (yes, it is a big but!) they don’t work all the time and the times when they don’t work are often when we are most distressed. At those times nothing seems to stop our mind thrashing about. When we engage with those thoughts and try to make our mind see sense, we often actually increase how hooked we are. When we try to hold back or change the direction of the waves of emotional pain that are buffeting us, we just get exhausted.

The A in ACT stands for Acceptance. One of the things we may need to accept is that although we may be able to influence our thoughts and feelings, we can’t control them and sometimes in trying to control them we get actually get more hooked.

So what could we do instead? The best option seems to be to use mindfulness:

  • Observing our thoughts and feelings with curiosity and compassion
  • Allowing our feelings to rise and fall
  • Letting our thoughts come and go
  • Bringing our attention to this moment now – what we are experiencing through our five senses
  • Connecting with our valuesWho do I really want to be? And then,
  • Taking action based on our values.